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At Home in Chirilagua, Va.
Salvadoran Leaves Old Village, Finds New One in U.S.

By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 6, 1999; Page A01

Another in a biweekly series of stories about the people and events that shaped Washington in the 20th Century.

To a young woman like Edith Zambrano, Washington in the summer of 1983 was a place to escape from. It was a foreign city where neighbors teased her in a language she didn't understand. It was somewhere to work for a few years in menial jobs and wait out the civil war that had interrupted her schooling in rural El Salvador.

It was anything but home, and Zambrano, then barely 19, desperately wanted to go home.

She had been one of the first Hispanics to move into her neighborhood, a dilapidated wedge of Alexandria where the apartment buildings were known for cockroaches inside and drug dealers outside. Each day, she woke before dawn to make burritos in a restaurant, then returned late in the evening after a night shift cleaning offices. And always, she dreamed of seeing the classmates she left behind in a faraway village named Chirilagua.

Then, in a way, her dream came true.

One by one, that summer and the next, her classmates showed up and moved into her neighborhood. First came Alex and Hector, then Sandra and Cristina and Luis. Her cousins followed, Milagro and Melba, Miriam and Marina. Every Sunday, the crowds at the neighborhood soccer games grew, and every Sunday, she bumped into someone else from back home.

"What happened? What are you doing here?" she asked, excited to see familiar faces. The answer was always the same: "La guerra." The war.

Zambrano wasn't going back to Chirilagua--Chirilagua was coming to her.

Over the next few years, so many people from the village moved into her neighborhood that the new residents stopped calling it Arlandria, as it had been known for decades. They named it Chirilagua instead, and Zambrano decided she was home after all.

At the time, she had no idea she was witnessing the start of a historic migration to Washington, a migration not just from Chirilagua, but also from Lima and La Paz, Seoul and Saigon, Taipei and Bombay--an ongoing migration that has changed the city and its suburbs in profound and unexpected ways.

Even as Zambrano welcomed friends and relatives to her adopted neighborhood, at least a quarter of a million immigrants arrived in the region during the 1980s, and nearly as many followed in this decade--the largest wave of immigration in Washington's history. Today, 1 in 6 area residents is foreign-born, up from 1 in 12 in 1980 and 1 in 22 in 1970.

It was the jobs that drew them here, suburban jobs mostly, that led the vast majority of the immigrants to neighborhoods outside the District. The newcomers presented Washington with a large pool of low-wage workers just as the fast-growing suburban economy demanded an army of construction laborers and waiters, cooks and housekeepers. Later, those who came with college degrees would help sustain the area's high-tech boom.

A century ago, the nation's first great wave of immigration all but bypassed Washington. The millions of Europeans who arrived at Ellis Island headed for industrial centers such as New York, Chicago or Boston. But Washington emerged as a major destination for the most recent wave of immigration, one rooted primarily in Asia, Latin America and Africa.

No single country has dominated the immigrant flow to Washington, but more people came from El Salvador than any other nation, the majority from the rural southeastern provinces of La Union and San Miguel. Washington's ties to that area date to the 1960s, but trying to uncover the genesis of the connection can be like tracing a Biblical family tree.

Zambrano's father was the first in her family to make the journey to Washington, arriving in the early 1970s to find construction work. According to family lore, he chose the capital to follow a friend, who had followed a brother, who had married a woman whose sister may have been working in Washington's diplomatic community.

Zambrano's mother joined her husband in Washington a few years later, leaving her children behind with their grandparents in Cuco, a beach town south of Chirilagua. Zambrano was the oldest of four children, and they spent their youth frolicking in the sand with other village kids.

Zambrano was only 16 when she made an adult's decision. It was 1980, and the civil war that eventually forced a million Salvadorans to flee the country was just beginning. During a trip to the provincial capital, Zambrano's grandfather happened upon the bodies of 17 high school students who were massacred for allegedly aiding the guerrillas.

On his return to Cuco, the grandfather forbade Zambrano from starting 10th grade. She was furious. "I had the uniform, the books, everything was all ready to go," Zambrano recalled. "I cried all night."

She called her mother in Washington to complain. When her mother refused to overrule the grandfather, Zambrano switched tactics--and demanded to come to America.

Her mother resisted. "She said: 'No, it's very hard. I work 16 hours a day, and sometimes I don't eat. Sometimes I don't sleep.' " Still, Zambrano wanted to come. "I told my mother, 'Send the money.' "

Zambrano made the arrangements with Roberto, a smuggler, or coyote, who lived in the center of Chirilagua, agreeing to pay him $2,000, half up front. They set off from San Salvador, where Zambrano, a cousin and perhaps 40 strangers met the smugglers at a hotel.

Fifteen days of buses and trains brought them across El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico, followed by a six-day trek through the mountains and a quick jaunt by raft across the Rio Grande. The coyotes then crammed their human cargo into cars, hiding them in trunks and under seats. Zambrano sat in the front passenger seat, with two men pressed beneath her legs. She lost all feeling in the limbs as the car passed a border checkpoint.

In Los Angeles, the smugglers bought her clothes and a plane ticket. On May 22, 1980, she arrived at Dulles International Airport with no luggage. Her mother and a friend took her immediately to her new home at 3833 Milan Drive No. 4.

There, she shared a small one-bedroom apartment with her mother, an uncle and aunt. Within a year, her grandmother and three siblings would squeeze in as well. She usually slept on the living room floor, where rats and cockroaches were common visitors. Outside, prostitutes and drug dealers plied their trade. Zambrano's family were the only Hispanics in the building.

The Arlandria apartment buildings--typical of the older, cheaper housing that immigrants could afford--were built after World War II, and flooding from the muddy waters of Four Mile Run had kept rents low. Working-class whites lived there at first, followed by working-class blacks in the 1970s.

"I was very scared of the neighbors," Zambrano said. "They looked at me like I was strange. They'd say hello, and I didn't know what to do. It was tough at first. But it got easier as more people came. You knew each other and you spoke the same language."

The migration from Chirilagua was steady and swift. Zambrano's relatives came, then her neighbors and their friends. Every one of the classmates she left behind in ninth grade showed up, too--except a boy named Elmer, who she heard was killed in the war.

The new community expanded around family networks. The first to arrive would send for relatives, then put them up in already crowded apartments, explain the bus routes and help them find jobs. Zambrano started work her second day in America, joining her mother as a Sheraton housekeeper by day and a Crystal City janitor at night.

"It was exciting to see people you knew again, and work and make money," Zambrano said. "But it was also sad, because we had all left our homes. Some had left behind children. . . . Our whole world changed."

Before long, Arlandria changed, too. Erol's Video Club on Mount Vernon Avenue started stocking Spanish-language movies. Local groceries loaded up on Hispanic foods and, by 1986, one shop was selling 8,600 tortillas a week. Gigante Express, the Miami-based company that specializes in shipping to Central America, opened an outlet that made $1 million in its first year. By 1986, about 80 percent of the neighborhood's residents were Hispanic, according to one survey.

But the neighborhood was not always so accommodating. The immigrants, who spoke little English, rarely interacted with their native-born neighbors. There was grumbling from white and black residents about how the newcomers crowded into apartments, played "foreign" music too loudly or littered the neighborhood.

But William "Sonny" Duke, 62, who still runs the local dry cleaner, said most residents seemed to take the Salvadoran influx in stride--and then they up and left the neighborhood.

"You know how people are," he said. "A lot of people said they were moving because these Spanish people were carrying on and all the Spanish food was stinking up the apartments. But most of them said they were just moving up to a better place."

Bob Williams, 59, a local barber who hired two Spanish-speaking haircutters, said the tensions were subdued. "It was always low-income anyhow, and they just moved in and kept to themselves," he said. "People would come in and complain about them taking over and stealing jobs, but those people didn't want to work anyway."

Zambrano said some neighbors teased her because she spoke no English, but most left her alone. Did she have any friends who weren't Salvadoran? "Yes, they were Guatemalan and Nicaraguan."

Racial tensions in Arlandria were aggravated in 1986, when developers bought the apartment buildings with plans to upgrade them into luxury housing. Thousands of low-income residents of all races faced eviction, and frustration sometimes boiled over into brawls between Hispanics and blacks.

But the threat of evictions also brought the community together. Zambrano said her landlord cut off her air-conditioning and then the running water in an attempt to force her to move. She refused to leave, instead joining a multiracial committee of tenants who decided to fight the developers.

Zambrano agreed to become a named plaintiff in a federal lawsuit accusing the developers of discriminating against minority tenants by trying to evict them. Even after city officials toyed with sending federal officers in to hunt for illegal immigrants, Zambrano participated in protests and organized her old classmates.

In February 1987, Zambrano was one of 200 activists who took over the Alexandria City Council chamber. She watched D.C. homeless advocate Mitch Snyder nearly come to blows with then-Mayor James P. Moran Jr., who wanted to create a mixed-income neighborhood rather than "a reservation of desperately poor people."

Later that year, Zambrano and Moran participated in a panel discussion at T.C. Williams High School about affordable housing. A few students took shots at Zambrano, one of them demanding, "Why don't you go back to South America?"

Zambrano began to cry. "That really hurt," she recalled. "That girl made me feel like this was not my country, and this was not my home."

But Zambrano stayed. She legalized her status when she married her husband, Oscar, in 1986, shortly after he obtained a green card. They are both citizens now and work together at Rosslyn's Santa Fe Cafe, where a local magazine named Oscar chef of the year. They have two children and purchased a house in Arlington in 1997.

Today, Zambrano says she feels far more comfortable in Washington than in Chirilagua, which she has visited a few times. It's there that she gets the strange looks now.

Chirilagua, Va., is doing well, too. Slowed by the lawsuit and protests, developers failed to complete their plans before the real estate market tanked, according to John Liss, director of the local tenants committee. Then, after one developer went bankrupt, the tenants established a cooperative and purchased several of his buildings. Moran, now the area's congressman, helped secure federal funds to make it possible.

More than 5,000 natives of Chirilagua now live in the Washington area, said Santos Vega, a former president of the cooperative. Many, like Zambrano, moved out of the neighborhood, but new ones replace them every day. Chirilaguans have opened new restaurants and other businesses, and a local committee raises money to build soccer fields, parks and playgrounds back in their native village.

In Arlandria, housing conditions have improved and crime is down. So the tenants committee now finds itself discussing a new concern, a troubling influx of immigrants into the neighborhood. "The Hondurans," Vega explained. "It's hard to get them involved."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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